Behind the scenes of MLB’s first Draft Lottery

December 7th, 2022

When you see the numbers “11-8-10-2,” what do you think of?

No, that isn’t your high school locker combination. Those were the first four ping pong balls drawn at the inaugural MLB Draft Lottery on Tuesday in San Diego, awarding the first overall pick in the 2023 Draft to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates, along with the Nationals and A’s, shared the best chance at drawing the top selection, so the result wasn’t terribly shocking to those watching live on MLB Network. Behind closed doors, the reality was much more suspenseful.

The results revealed during the broadcast were actually determined about two hours earlier in an alternate location attended by Major League Baseball officials, an independent auditor from PricewaterhouseCoopers who ensured the integrity of the procedure and a pool reporter, J.J. Cooper of Baseball America. Just like the events conducted for years in the NBA and NHL, a case of ping pong balls, numbered 1-14, were loaded into a lottery machine manufactured by Smartplay.

Each MLB team that missed the 2022 postseason was assigned a series of four-number combinations to be drawn from the machine. The 1,001 possible sequences were distributed according to win-loss record, ranging from clubs like Washington (55-107), Oakland (60-102) and Pittsburgh (62-100) which each held 16.5 percent or 165 of the combinations, to Milwaukee (86-76), which had just two. (The 1,001st combination is not assigned to any team.)

MLB senior vice president, amateur & medical, John D’Angelo ran the show from the front of the room, first holding up a copy of Tuesday morning’s San Diego Union-Tribune to verify the drawing was being held in real time then firing up the machine.

The four balls were drawn in 15-second intervals. Unlike what was shown on the broadcast, the drawing started by awarding the first pick and was repeated for the first six selections.

The first number appeared -- 11. That didn’t mean much without the context of the three other balls, except that the combinations assigned to the teams with the higher odds to be drawn feature lower numbers. A double-digit ball kept the hopes of the longshot teams alive.

The second ball drawn read eight. The third ball read 10. The Pirates, Nationals and A’s still had to like their chances, but the lack of low numbers gave teams as low as the Red Sox, who held just eight combinations -- the fifth fewest -- a chance.

After undoubtedly the longest 15 seconds of the evening, the fourth and final ball was extracted from the machine. Two. A quick scan of the combinations revealed that Pittsburgh had won the right to next year’s first overall pick, the sixth time in franchise history and the second in three years that the Pirates find themselves at the top.

Seven more drawings were conducted for the next five selections as two combinations were assigned to teams that had already been called.

2nd pick: 3-5-1-13, Nationals
3rd pick: 12-4-13-11, Tigers
4th pick: 14-11-2-8, Pirates (void)
4th pick: 10-5-8-9, Rangers
5th pick: 1-5-14-3, Nationals (void)
5th pick: 10-8-13-9, Twins
6th pick: 10-1-11-12, A’s

That the Twins heard their name called at all was a sheer stroke of luck, as just nine of the 1,001 combinations were assigned to them. Under the previous rules of the Draft, Minnesota’s 78-84 record would have locked in the 13th overall pick. Instead the club served as an immediate example of what the Lottery set out to accomplish.

It’s also worth noting that the Twins and Red Sox finished with identical records in 2022, but Minnesota gained the edge in the Lottery with a worse record in 2021. Had Boston slipped just one game under, the combination that led to the improbable leap would have been theirs.

The rest of the Draft order falls in line with the pre-Lottery odds, followed by the postseason teams in reverse finish. The Reds, who had the fourth-best chance at the top selection but didn’t have a combination drawn, will pick seventh in July. The Royals, Rockies and Marlins will round out the top 10.